Tag Archives: society and wealth

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and the Theme of Class Inequality

Edgar Allan Poe is the undisputed master of horror fiction [suck on it, Stephen King].  In his short story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” Poe explores the depth of self-indulgence, health paranoia, and the futility of the affluent members of society attempting to survive a social crisis by gating themselves off from the rest of the suffering masses.

Poe begins the plot of his story by informing the reader how, “The ‘Red Death’ had long devastated the country.”  The severity of this disease is so dire that for those unfortunate enough to contract it:

There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution.  The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.

The last words in that passage are particularly important to the narrative.  Unlike many of the stories being composed at the time (and even now), in which social turmoils are depicted as experiences of moral growth for most of the characters, Poe is willing to explore the limited extend of our moral virtues; concluding that there exists a point at which human decency and empathy will be easily abandoned in favor of self-preservation.  The sovereign of the land, Prince Prospero is the base embodiment of the aristocratic, affluent few in society, who in time of need do not reach out to alleviate the suffering of their subjects, but instead find it more convenient for their own survival to horde the necessities to survive from the dying masses:

When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.

The Prince, and his aristocratic peers, closed themselves off in happy oblivion within their gated community, indifferent and unconcerned about the horrors that dwell beyond their blissful experience.  So lost do they become in the fanciful, carefree world they have created for themselves that, years into the epidemic, “while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad,” the now fully secluded Prince still manages to, “entertain his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.”  It is important for a reader to pause and reflect at the message the author is trying to convey.  The world is literary dying around the last few people who have the means to fortify against the affliction, and their primary interest is in vainly entertaining themselves with balls and masquerades.  Not worrying about finding a cure to the ailment, or constructing a plan by which society is to be preserved and protected through the crisis.  Nothing but a relentless desire to indulge in the splendors of life with equally heedless peers.  Never have the words out off sight, out off mind been more apropos than they are to this scene.

Throughout the prose, Poe spends a significant amount of time detailing the eloquent and expensive features of the castle the aristocracy has confined itself in.  Primarily, this is done to fully draw the reader into the features of the plot; secondarily, it serves to demonstrate the vanity of the upper-class characters, who see no peril, no anguish, no need, as important as their want to remain undisturbed and unaware about the worries of the sickly masses.  However, behind this mode of self-sustained obliviousness, lies a state of constant paranoia for the affluent citizens.  This is best illustrated by the way Poe uses the motion of a gigantic ebony clock (time serving the role of a commodity that no amount of wealth or power can control) as a source of anxiety for the masqueraders.  With every noise and movement emitted by the ebony clock, “it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation.”  And with the passing of each such moment, the occupants of the castle vowed mirthfully to each other not to let the ominous thing have the same affect on them again, only to fail as soon as, “there came yet another chiming of the clock.”

Having demonstrated the state of badly concealed apprehension exhibited by the party guests, the narrative goes on to suggest how the main distraction that exists for the masqueraders is Prince Prospero’s eccentric decorative feats created specially for the evening.  Both the Prince, and his fashionable embellishments of the seven chambers making up the ballroom halls, are described as “bold and fiery,” but also repeatedly referred to as mad (either directly, or by implication).  To suit his taste for the evening, the Prince had made it a requirement for the masqueraders to disguise themselves as grotesquely as possible; a request that appears to have been wholly lived up to by the attendees.  (The reason for this request appears to have little cause other than for the Prince to further illustrate his eccentric flair, but it cannot be ruled out that the underlying cause could have something to do with the Prince’s desire to show how he is unaffected by the nervousness about death that his fellow aristocrats seem to be displaying.)

As the night wanes on, the aristocratic masqueraders find themselves more and more confined, as they densely pack into one chamber, while abandoning others.  The source for this behavior is the arrival of a guest no one had previously noticed, despite his striking appearance:

And the rumor of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive, of disapprobation and surprise–then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.

The physical appearance of the mysterious figure was one that deeply disturbed the otherwise grotesquely shrouded party attendees, because, “his venture was dabbed in blood–and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.”  His costume was that of the Red Death.  Here, the aristocrats, who have spent years hiding away blissfully from the terror and despair that surrounds them, are at last forced to see firsthand the image that is the cause of their self-imposed confinement–the real source of their relentless anxiety.  Prince Prospero’s reaction towards the stranger was immeasurable rage:  “Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery?  Seize him and unmask him–that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise.”  This expression of outrage is noteworthy, because it is coming from a man who showed no consideration for the suffering of his own subjects, who holds no regard for anything beyond his own self-indulgence, but is now screaming in all righteousness about being mocked–about being offended–eager to uphold to some murky semblance of principle.  Nonetheless, despite the Prince’s stern command, no one dared move towards the intruder, causing the Prince himself to “rush hurriedly through the six chambers / He bore aloft a drawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within three or four feet of the retreating figure.”  The chase did not last long, as the figure suddenly turns to face the Prince, “upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero.”  All pretense has now been abandoned by the masqueraders, for the stranger was not a costumed intruder, for “now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death.”  The disease the inhabitants of the castle had spent so long to shelter from had at last penetrated through their iron gates, “and the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay.  And the flames of the tripods expired.  And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

If there is one theme that Poe pointedly captures in his haunting story, it is that, ultimately, when it comes to disease carrying pathogens, it doesn’t matter how much wealth or power you possess.  It doesn’t matter who–or what–you are, or where you reside in your social pecking order.  Disease does not, and cannot, care about the arbitrary caste system or social mores your particular culture has decided to embrace; it is nature’s perfect equalizer.  The only thing disease knows is to spread and kill indiscriminately.  And once the pathogen carrying corpses of the lower classes begin to pile up all around your gated community, no amount of affluence will protect you from the fate that it carries.  It’s very poetic, in an eerie way.

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The Comfort of A Countercultural Mindset

Earlier today, a casual acquaintance made a remark to me which, although I’ve heard repeated often in past conversations, I can’t fully agree with.  The remark in question was (and I’m paraphrasing), “Cultural change is born amongst the downtrodden more than any other class.  This is because counterculture rises from the bottom-up, starting with the have-nots, rather than the haves.”  I take issue with this sort of broad-sweeping analysis.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it would look great on a poster or banner somewhere, but within the scope of modern history it really has little-to-no credible validity as a trusted byline.

To illustrate my point, I’ll refer to one of the most well-known examples of counterculture in recent history: the generation-wide shift in focus and values that came to categorize American youths in the 1960s.

The modes of thinking and doing in 1960s culture reflected the evermore growing generational gap which emerged as a consequence of the baby boomers maturing/reaching adolescence, and the great prosperity that many Americans enjoyed in the economic growth of the time.  Unlike what is implied by the remark stated above, the counterculture of the 1960s was not driven by the downtrodden or the have-nots of the socioeconomic ladder, but the very individuals who benefited most from the economic prosperity that arose throughout middle-class America following the Second World War.

Plainly put, the 1960s ranks as being amongst the richest of times in American history.  This rise in affluence made commercialism and consumerism a wide-scale business (in other words, people all over bought big and they spent big).  All of this reflected in the growing emergence of popular culture, which was essentially a byproduct of the increasing number of teenagers (growing out of the post-War baby boom) who were coming of age, and eager to establish an identity for themselves.  And fortunately there were just as many businesses and corporations eager to sell them the products (music, movies, fashion, etc.) needed to define such a thirst for identity.

Ironically, all this affluence also created a sense of resentment amongst idealistic youths, who sought to reject the commercialism and consumerism of the era.  The Beatniks, for example, began as a small group of idealistic young wanderers (usually middle-class, white, and financially comfortable), who idolized the lifestyle of social outsiders of the 1950s.  This group of wanderers (e.g. Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, etc.), and tales of their Bohemian travels throughout exotic segments of American society, served as inspiration to many of the countercultural offshoots that emerged amongst the youths of the 1960s (the most famous example being the Hippie subculture).

The image of the countercultures of this era are usually portrayed as abrasive (i.e. anti-war protests) or dynamic (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement).  Although these were definite reflections of the cultural divide which had become prominent at the time, the true countercultural thoughts and actions cannot be generalized or defined by a single movement or event, because it wasn’t a single movement or event.  Rather, it was a change in mindset caused by the way a new–larger than ever–generation was reacting to their environment on a day-to-day basis.  But, more than anything, it did not develop bottom-up, and was not inspired out of its participants economic hardship or scarcity in opportunity (statistically speaking, these young people had the most comfortable and hopeful lives out of any of the generations that preceded them).

The reason for this is that in order for countercultural thought to develop, a person must have the leisure time to reflect on their surrounding, in addition to enjoying the economic stability of their social era to make an alternative lifestyle even remotely plausible.  It is a luxury the downtrodden and truly impoverished simply don’t have, because those who don’t have the time or energy to philosophize about social change–who are often entirely dependent on the current social order to maintain even the little that its given them–will have the least interest in setting up a counter-anything (which is why people who reside in the lower-income bracket tend to exhibit the slowest rate of cultural change out of any other economic group).

I think the misconception partly stems from the popular conflation of countercultures with social revolutions.  At first this is an understandable mistake, but upon any close inspection the distinction between the two couldn’t be starker.  The fact is, whereas revolutions seek to overturn, dispose of, and/or usurp the sociocultural order that happens to be dominating in the particular society and time, countercultures alone are not as ambitious; usually willing to be perfectly content with simply carving out a niche for themselves parallel to the existing order, thereby still existing within the greater framework of society, while preserving a distinct identity from it (even if only superficially so).